Love Never Fails: Part 1

I want to tell you a story. Stories are how we see the unseen. Truth is something that is written so deeply in our hearts that we have to carve away chunks of ourselves to find it. It is something that we often uncover much more effectively through living and storytelling than through logic or a well-turned argument. 

This post is part one of a story about a collision of love and beliefs in my life. Please check back soon for part two, or click here to subscribe to the Trivial Circumstances email list to get a notification when I publish it.

I have a dear friend. A great friend. The older I get, the more I realize she is a once-in-a-lifetime friend. (And that’s only if you’re lucky enough to have a lifetime that includes a friend like her. Most people aren’t.)

Vicky and I spent our preschool years joined at the hip. She was born six months after I was. She came home from the hospital to the little brick cape cod house across the street from my family’s white cape cod house.

I don’t remember meeting her. She was just always there–since before the beginning of memory–to play dress-up, to swim, to watch movies, to share bath-time, to write stories with me.

She is still my best friend, even though today we live thousands of miles from each other on opposite coast, in Boston and in Anchorage. She is never not there. Right now, this year, we text pretty much every day. We send each other memes and news articles. We tell each other stories about our families and reminisce about past years. There have been years when we’ve talked less frequently. Growing up, we faced new communications challenges each time we moved farther apart. From our neighboring cape cod houses, she moved to the other side of town, then I moved to another town, then to Guatemala and back. This was back before the Internet, when long distance phone calls were charged per minute and our parents wisely decided not to leave it up to two chatty best friends to determine how long was a reasonable conversation. We wrote oodles of letters, on actual paper. Those letters are now our prized possessions. Vicky keeps her half of the letters in her freezer because it’s the safest place in case of a fire.

There have been years when we haven’t shared everything with one another as openly as we did as kids or as openly as we do now. Even though we were born neighbors, we were born into a divided country and into families at odds with each other politically. We joined the world a few short years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision declared abortion legal. Her mother was an adamant and vocal supporter of abortion rights who volunteered at Planned Parenthood and at the Democratic Parthy. She inspired my mother to join the Pro-Life cause and to eventually found two pregnancy care centers focused on helping women find alternatives to abortion. 

One moment in our childhood that our families still laugh over was me telling Vicky in 1984 (when we were 5), “It’s okay, maybe Mondale will win next time,” after he carried only one state out of 50 in his race against Ronad Reagan for the U.S. presidency. At 5, I couldn’t have known much about Democrats or Republicans or what they stood for, but I knew my best friend and I were at odds over something when we stood with our families.

Vicky on the left, Amy on the right

We are from different religious backgrounds as well. She went to Catholic parochial school, my family had our butts in the pew of an evangelical church every Sunday morning and evening. Wednesdays, too, and often on vacation. I will never forget the look of horror on her face or my confusion when I grabbed her rosary for playing dress-up once. I never did it again. In a world where we are familiar with the ins and outs of so many religions all over the world, it’s hard to imagine the deep division we saw between Catholic and Evangelical in the 80s. It certainly wasn’t the level it was when wars were fought over it centuries earlier, but it was there. Many evangelical churches didn’t (and many still don’t) see Catholics as Christians.

We have both had our share of doubts over the years. How could we possibly have a friendship so close when our beliefs in the Things That Matter were so different?

This paradigm was reinforced by what I learned at church. As an evangelical Christian, the way to see the world around me had a clear division: people who knew Jesus, and everyone else (AKA my personal mission field). Everyone else, of course, included Catholics. We were built to go into the world and preach the gospel. The awesome responsibility of being saved was to help save other people.

I remember telling her at least one time (and I suspect it is more than once) that we couldn’t be TRUE best friends because we didn’t believe the same things. Jesus was my very best friend, and if you didn’t know him, how could you really know me? As a Christian, I knew the Truth in ways other people didn’t, and I was expected to fight for it. That was my Purpose. Other Christians shared that purpose. Close friendships with people who didn’t threatened to compromise my Purpose and Mission since they could not possibly understand or support my priorities. Worse, they might tempt me away from the Straight and Narrow path. We were called to love everyone, but friendship with people who also loved Jesus was what we aspired to most.

I bought into it, sometimes. But in a way that don’t think I could have articulated as a kid, that dichotomy always felt a bit uncomfortable for me. Here was someone I was close to, who I trusted with my life (and more importantly, my heart). Yet the main purpose of our presence in each others lives was for me to teach her, to help her understand what I already knew so well… It felt weird, but it was all I knew. Every so often I would attempt to convert her, to bridge that gap. I was elated when she came to my church’s week-long summer Bible school with me two summers in a row. Her mother was less thrilled when Vicky learned about hell there at six years old.

Eventually, it wasn’t just beliefs that were at stake. When we were eleven, Vicky’s parents divorced. It was heart-rending, and it happened while I was thousands of miles away, helpless not only to stop the divorce, but without any way to give my friend real consolation.  I heard about her family falling apart from Central America, devastated for her but separated from her.

My parents credited their faith with the success of their marriage. They had obeyed the rules God set forth in his law. The law was like gravity: when you followed it, your life fell into rhythm with the universe. If you tried to go against it, chaos and misfortune ensued. Of course, we knew and believed that everyone sins. But part of our freedom in Christ was ever-increasing freedom from the inertial pull of sin in our lives. Even though I wasn’t comfortable with that us/them dichotomy that seemed to go against the grain of my friendship with Vic, here was the truth of it playing out right in front of me. Here was sin hurting one of the people I loved most in the world while my own family remained happy and intact. Jesus was the only solution I knew. I continued to try to win her in what I thought were subtle and casual ways, and her devastation after the divorce cemented my belief in the way that only hard life experience can.

Our friendship persisted, year after year, and our love and appreciation for each other grew out of childhood into adulthood. I went off to a college known for its political conservatism, left a graduate program to get married, and followed my husband to California to support his career. Vicky went to a renowned party school, partied less than I did at my strict college (which wasn’t much), discovered her own feminist voice, and got a job as a journalist in Virginia. Our lives couldn’t have been much farther apart, or more different. We saw each other and talked to each other less in those years. Our letter writing slowed, but it was never really replaced by email or phone calls, even though we finally paid our own long distance phone bills. Even so, our love for each other continued into our new adult lives and we saw each other when we could.

One day, Vicky came to visit me in California. I picked her up at her friends’ house in San Diego, and before we got back to my apartment, she hesitantly told me that her classmate Jess who had moved to Virginia with her was more than a friend.

I wasn’t really surprised. I’d kind of suspected for years, the way I’d suspected her mom’s long-term roommate after her parents’ divorce wasn’t just a roommate.

What came next, though, shocked me:

She asked if she was still welcome to stay in my home.

To this day, every time I think about that moment, tears come to my eyes. For all of our differences, for all that I tried to casually win her over to loving Jesus the way I did, for all of the wondering how we could possibly be friends when our beliefs were so different, there was no question in my mind that we WOULD be friends. I didn’t always understand how it could work, but what was even more inconceivable was a world without our friendship. It had existed since before our memories began. There was no decision required to continue it. And there was certainly no question in my mind that she would always and forever be welcome at my house. After all, her friendship was more of a home to me than any place I could rest my head.

I reassured her. Of course she was welcome at my house. We tried to brush it off. We enjoyed each others’ company despite the awkwardness—we were used to disagreeing, after all. Our friendship grew closer again now that she felt like she could be open with me. Looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t ask what made her think she would not find a warm welcome at my home. But I didn’t. I just wondered. I assumed she misunderstood me. And I sat in the pain of that for years.

I stayed in that state of self pity over the misunderstanding until life circumstances and my friend pushed me to look outside of myself for a better answer…

Note: I am publishing this story with Vicky’s permission. Well, not just permission. She helped fact check it (her memory is so much better than mine). And she has helped edit this and much of my other writing. She has yet to give me hard time for my poor grammar, considering I was an English major, but she certainly could. Any errors are probably things I wrote after she looked at it.

Check back soon for the next installment of the story. Better yet, be lazy and subscribe to my email list. I’ll let you know when the next post is up.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 2): Love in the Age of Fear

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. I’m currently writing about the first kind, constrained love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended a New York Times Op Ed called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear.” She describes the constant fear that mothers are expected to live under, fear that any little thing could lead to catastrophe for their kids. Or fear that they’ll be judged for their lack of fear. The layers of fear over motherhood are thick and complex.

Two things stood out to me. The first is the label, “Age of Fear”. It is such an apt description of our era that I went looking to see other people using it—they must be. But apparently they’re not, or at least not yet. So let me be the first to echo it. I think that phrase “Age of Fear” will resonate far beyond the scope and moment of that OpEd.

The second is that fear is seen as a facet of love. And not just a biproduct or a sadly necessary part, but something so critical that if it’s not therein sufficient quantities, people call child protective services. ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’

I think the Age of Fear and what I’m calling Constrained Love go hand in hand. When I first read the phrase the Age of Fear, it resonated because I recognize that I’m a citizen of the Age of Fear. I’m a born and bred citizen, not naturalized. It’s not something I adopted deliberately, and it’s not something with its roots in the last few years. When I first read about the Age of Fear, I thought, “well of course—9/11. This is the result of the constant threat of terrorism.” But I don’t think that’s it. I remember the roots of the Age of Fear being there when I began having thoughts of my own, back around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the Internet was being born. If anything, it should have been the beginning of a more optomistic, hopeful time. But hope with a grain of fear in it is a different animal.

I remember my dad (who spent a year in Germany in the 70s) reminding me every so often that if the Third Reich could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. I remember arguing with Vicky (my childhood best friend) about whether people are inherently good or evil. Vicky loved the optimism of Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How could she think that, after what people had done to Anne Frank? Anne and my friend both seemed naive. Whatever peace we found seemed tenuous, fragile, in need of protection from evil empires, maybe even from ourselves.

Like so many people in my age, I looked to ideology to protect me. To protect me from myself and from other people. So much of my faith and the way I interacted with life was shaped by the compulsion to acknowledge the evil at our core and to fear it.

Fear does strange things to hope, turns it into something different. It makes hope conditional. I hope that if I do things just right, I can avoid or eliminate the things I fear. I can shelter myself and my family from crisis by avoiding the mistakes of the past. We can put up a fence so high that the creeps won’t get to us. When Faith, Hope, and Love change to Fear, Hope, and Love, they all end up warped. Fear is the little bit of sand in the shoe that can drive us to take the wrong path. The leaven in the dough that I’ve seen wreak destruction in my own life.

When fear is the root, we protect ourselves from our selves and from each other. Last week I read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, who in some ways was before her time when it came to acknowledging vulnerability. She was all about recognizing our faults. It was published in 1989, when I was 10. But looking back at the book through the lens of the last 30 years, I can see the grain of fear. It’s worth quoting Pippert at length because she captures the spirit of the time in a way that I can’t do retrospectively:

“There is something truly wonderful and remarkable about us all. We have a capacity for love, an appreciation of beauty, and moments of genuine courage. But unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. We want to believe that the essential ‘us’ is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn’t let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side.

“Has it ever struck you as odd that, for all our sophistication, we modern people have a remarkably naive understanding of human nature? Living at the end of history’s most murderous century, we flatter ourselves that we are basically good people who occasionally do bad deeds. The founders of our nation were not so naive. The very political institutions they contructed for us, founded on concepts like ‘checks and balances,’ are testimony to their assumption that human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions. People with power cannot be trusted too far. History hardly indicates that our problem has changed—rather, that it is we who have developed short memories. We are struggling the the symptoms of an age-old disease, which we have lost the capacity to diagnose.”

Do you see what I see? The idea that to get to the good, we have to contain the evil? The idea that our bad selves dominate and that our main line of defense is fierce PROTECTION? I hardly mean to pick on Pippert. Honestly, I may be reading fear into it because it had such a strong mark in my own life. It was a view so pervasive that 10-year-old Amy unquestioningly and enthusiastically repeated it. It’s really subtle. So much so that it may just be me displacing my own thoughts onto what Pippert is saying. But I see the idea that the answer to this darker side of ourselves is in our institutions and our traditions. And while they certainly need to protect us, I think we (I?) leaned on them entirely too much. And I suspect this: that there is a bright and direct line between what I remember (and the subtle thing I see in Pippert) and the Age of Fear we find ourselves in 30 years later.

Think about the Late 80s. We were decades past the world wars and Vietnam. We were inches away from winning the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell the same year Pippert published that book. We had used the power of our military and our culture to dominate evil in the world. The world never seemed brighter than in the late 80s and early 90s. But I think in our victories, we were scared. Scared of one another and of ourselves. Frightened of the creeping immorality in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in ourselves. We had seen the end result of letting the evil in human hearts run rampant, and it was terrifying.

We kept looking for the seeds of evil so we could protect ourselves before the problem got dangerously big. We became proactive. Preemptive.

The news outlets built for war turned the same camera onto car accidents, kidnappings, plane crashes.

The government institutions that had helped us battle evil on an international scale were repurposed for pre-emptive war. And for war on evil within our borders—The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

I am definitely not the first person to point out this repurposing of militaristic approaches to international problem-solving. But I see another layer of it. This didn’t just happen on international and national levels. It happened in our schools, in our churches, in our homes. We looked inward, we looked deeper, we saw the darkness within and decided to make sure we were battling it preemptively. Leave no room for evil at home. Or else… or else we might become the next Nazi Germany? Or else… [insert bad thing here] might happen again.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a macro level, laws are used to govern conscience. We outlaw things like straws and suicide. We address tragedy with more laws. (How many laws are named after people who have been kidnapped or murdered?) We look for the kernel of evil and fence it in, building bigger and stronger fences every time the barrier is breached. The children are our future, we need to show them our love by making the world a safer place. World war: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

We’ve amped up our medical technology. We’ve found vaccines for any conceivable virus. We’ve honed our cancer treatments. We’ve mapped the genome. We’ve started talking realistically about eliminating death. We show our love for our ailing family members by throwing every dime we have (or don’t have) into their care. Long hospital stays and prolonged deathbed agony: Never again!

Without big wars, death on a much smaller scale terrorized us. 17 years after 9-11, we are still plugging gaps in our borders where terrorists could trickle in. Almost every large building in the country has cement barriers to prevent someone from driving an explosive-loaded car into the bottom floor. We love our country and our businesses and institutions. Terrorism: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a family level, protection becomes a weapon of love. We put up internet filters. We learn to watch for signs of child molesters in our schools, churches, and families. We hover over our kids as they wander the neighborhood, as they walk to and from school. We acknowledge (not incorrectly) that evil can go undetected, can even flourish within the confines of our homes, so we watch for it diligently. We love our children, so we must do ANYTHING we can to prevent these bad things from happening to them. Kidnappings and sexual abuse: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

And on an individual level, we protect ourselves. This I the most obvious to me in my own life. I’m constantly on the lookout for patterns of behavior that led to my divorce. I remember this paranoia hitting a fevered pitch when I spent some time speculating whether the cute guy I’d met on the trail was a homeless drug dealer. When fear reigns, every possible risk has to be accounted for or eliminated. I show my love to myself by vigilantly watching for any sign of repeating the same mistake twice. Divorce: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

Because we love, and because we have learned to express love as fear, we protect our loved ones from the evil outside and the evil within themselves. The effectiveness of my belief system (in my case, evangelical Christianity, but that is certainly not the only example) is evaluated based on its effectiveness at stopping evil, at protecting me from others and from myself.

Pippert asks, “Does God make a difference?” If I can’t answer yes to that question, there’s not much point in engaging with God. But WHY I think God makes a difference matters so much. Is it because I think it makes me safe from the evil in me and those around me? My city on a hill is a place where children are safe, where the environment is pristine and the dolphins thrive, where terrorists can’t get in because we’ve eliminated all of their entry points with giant fences. Otherwise, what good is it? It is not only my right, it is my primary, God-given responsibility as a loving person to see the sprouts of evil in myself and those around me and root it out.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.” It’s everywhere, in all of us. The statement is not untrue, but oh, what have we done with it?

Fear is like a ghost whispering in our ears at every opportunity: “‘Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.’ Never again! Protect what you love! Evil will not pass the same way twice! If you’ve learned enough from your last encounter with it, you can and must move heaven and earth to prevent its like in other places!”

Fear is sensitive, it detects the evil around me better than anything I know. It protects me and the people I love. Fear is my friend.

Or is it? What if fear cannot live alongside what may be the two most powerful weapons we have? What if fear does not leave room for hope (or it’s close cousin, resilience)? What if fear isn’t a symptom of love, but runs love out of any space it occupies?

If you’re not on board with those questions, ask yourself this: what have we gained from letting fear rule? I know my answer to that question: Not safety, not happiness, not community, not love. When we plant fear, the only yield we get is more fear.

Fat and Happy

I had an epiphany today. I am an emotional eater, and more often than not that means I eat because I’m happy. That’s right. It’s a GOOD thing. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, but when I look in the mirror, I see French cheese and dinners with people I care about. I’m not saying it’s phsyically healthy or even the best way to deal with happiness, but it’s not the way I’ve been thinking about food.

I was processing that epiphany and what it means for all of my posts where I’ve compared sex and emotional eating when a friend texted me:

“I made 5:15 [fancy special occasion steakhouse] dinner reserverations. Tonight. You in?”

“Hell yes. What’s the occasion?”

“I fucking need [fancy special occasion steakhouse] is the occasion. And you.”

Now, this friend… This will not be the last time he shows up on my blog, so I’ll give him a name—Bernard. He’s quite possibly the least Bernard-y person I know. I figure if I’m going to give someone a fake name, it should be REALLY fake. I’m tempted to call him “Not Bernard” or simply Bernard, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll just stick with Bernard.

Now, this friend Bernard has had one of the most horrific years I can imagine. And the last week has been kind of the brimstone icing on the cake from hell. When he says he needs [fancy special occasion steakhouse], that is not a throwaway statement. He’s had a horrible year, and he is a man who feels deeply. All the feels. Grief, joy, love, pain—he is not afraid of them.

I thought to myself, “what is it when a person who’s hurting deeply wants [fancy special occasion steakhouse]? I know this person, and I know that for him, this is not a distraction, it’s not a few moments of reprieve from grief. He will bring grief with him to dinner—I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything else. So what is it, then?” And something clicked in me. Something I never understood about joy in the face of grief, about whistling in the dark or the band playing as the Titanic sank or doing a happy thing because it’s what a deceased loved one “would have wanted”. It is this: that hopelessness is not our ally, that sometimes doing battle with wrong in the world means hanging onto joy with every ounce of strength. In the face of suffering (or, worse, the suffering of people we love), it is tempting to feel like I’m countering the Bad Thing by wallowing in sorrow, by taking the hopelessness of the moment and extending it into the foreseeable future. We embrace the reality of our grief and other feelings by letting them become everything.

Joy can feel inauthentic and disingenuous in the face of suffering. And certainly embracing distractions or numbing the pain can rob it of meaning. This is not the place for platitudes. But there is a place where real grief and authentic joy live alongside each other. Where solidarity with someone hurting or lost means that I grieve with them but hang onto hope when they can’t any more. When I own hope and joy and do not let the bad thing take them away from me even if my friend may have lost sight of them for himself. Sing and cry. Hold the light of hope in the face of darkness and loses its power to overwhelm. Weaponize joy.

I don’t know how to do this. I think… for it to be effective, I have to have one foot firmly planted in grief and one in joy. The thing is, I’m not great at either. I’m so accustomed to stuffing feelings away where they’re less disruptive. Bad feelings, good feelings, any feelings. I’m happy to draw them out in other people. But damned if I’m going to show them myself. I don’t have either foot firmly planted in any emotional space—I dance on top of feelings like hot coals. I don’t touch them any more than I have to.

When Bernard and I went on our first date, he got me crying (and cried a bit himself). We cried over life, the universe, everything. When you’re our age (around 40) and dating, there’s a lot of life to talk about, and a lot of it is emotionally moving. But having someone I barely knew SEE me—understand where I was and reflect it to me in such a powerful way—freaked me out. This was not the first time crying has happened on a first date, but it is the first time I was the one doing it. I’m happy to push and prod other people into vulnerability. But I’m not so happy to have someone else do that to me. I’ve gotten so adept at avoiding it by directing the conversation to the person I’m talking to that it is rare for someone to get past my armor. It was scary. I’m glad Bernard pursued a second date even after I turned him down a few times.

When I was going through my divorce, I learned a lot about vulnerability. I cried—openly—in just about every coffee shop in the city of Anchorage. Crisis got past my wall, and it was a good thing. But crisis and vulnerability have faded a bit, and with them my capacity to feel things. Not that the emotion isn’t there, but when I don’t express it, it comes out sideways. And I get scared and hide it.

Apparently I also eat emotion, bad and good. Which raises the question, what if I’m not eating to suppress emotions, but because for me it’s an acceptable emotional outlet? Eating quesadillas is easier than crying. Eating fancy steak dinner is easier than feeling… happy? I consume to express something that needs to come out, and eating is a way I know how to do it. It’s not so much that I am getting rid of the feeling, but that it needs to come out and eating is the way I know how to do it. In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of emotional eating as letting emotions have too much territory. I’m beginning to wonder if I got it backwards, if I eat emotions because I’m not letting them have enough presence and power.

I’m not sure where to go with it yet, but I’m going to chew on it awhile. And maybe next time I feel like eating a mid-afternoon quesadilla, I’ll find a way to let out the Amy who sings and cries instead.

Chips, Queso, & Sex Drive

One reader asked me to write about the male sex drive. Since I’m not male… take this with a very large grain of salt. Perhaps even a block of salt, or an entire salt mine. This is my take based on my non-scientific observations. Because you have to start somewhere… (I’m not even going to try to address gender identity or any of that. I think my brain would explode. Maybe another day.)

I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely.

The second factor in difference between male and female sex drives is the fact that boys typically discover sexual self-satisfaction earlier in their lives and more easily. It’s just… out there and easy to find. I don’t have kids, but I’ve heard from many moms of boys how young they are when they figure out self-soothing. Disappointed? Sad? Lonely? Angry? There’s a quick fix that will make you feel great for awhile even if the problem hasn’t gone away. Again, I’m not going to say that’s good or bad. Just different. What it does, though, is open an opportunity for boys to learn to use sex hormones to address problems that could be handled differently. Girls may develop a bigger toolkit for dealing with disappointment because we typically figure out that mechanism for releasing our own pleasure hormones later in life (if ever). We have to solve social-emotional problems creatively.

Here’s another food comparison. (I make so many food-sex comparisons, I’m starting to wonder if my sexual preferences are more kitchen thank kink.) I eat emotionally because it’s worked for me my whole life. Sometime in my formative years, I learned that chips and queso make me feel better, even if they’re not solving my emotional problems. Eating gives me a shortcut to achieving my end goal of feeling better, even if it doesn’t last. It’s not the best, but it’s effective enough that I keep doing it (and I probably will until I find a more powerful alternative). I learned to do that from a very young age—it’s deeply engrained in my habits and very hard to overcome. You may laugh when I say that I NEED chips and queso, but it sure feels that way sometimes.

This is controversial, but based on my own experience I’m going to say that sex isn’t a critical need. We can live without it. People do it all the time. I’ve spent most of my thirties celibate, the majority of that time out of a choice to be faithful rather than a choice to be celibate. That was hard. I remember describing myself as a starving animal at one point. I wouldn’t have chosen the sexless years of my marriage, but I grew through them. I grew even more by keeping a celibate lifestyle by choice later on. Personal growth is not what happens when you are deprived of something you need. If you’re deprived of something you need, you don’t become a more complete person, you eventually go crazy or you die. Was it right for my ex-husband to deprive me of sex for years? No. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was ok.

Celibacy isn’t some magic that you either have or you don’t—it’s an acquired skill. I think sex feels like an urgent biological need because we’re using it to biochemically patch deficiencies in the things we DO need to survive, like love and help and relationship. That’s why, even if we’re getting sex, it can feel like a compulsion. The more sex I have and the less emotional connection, the more I’m going to feel like I need sex, regardless of how much sex I’m actually getting.

So you have a society that’s relationally starved, you have boys growing up with one powerful tool for self-soothing that is well-developed and other tools underdeveloped. Throw in porn, and discovering sex at a time when we’re just learning to function socially as adults, and it’s easy to see how sex can become a panacea for problems it may not actually be the best tool to solve. I’d be sex-crazed too if I thought it was the only way I could fill certain needs. Oh wait, I have been.

I think we (men and women) sometimes use sex as a patch for relational problems. My thought is that there may be reasons men seem to lean more heavily on it. It’s powerfully effective temporarily. So is cocaine, for that matter. But when the hormones wear off, the problem is still there. I don’t think that’s what sex is meant for. (Or, not the ONLY or even primary thing it’s meant for.) Like emotional eating, it’s incredibly painful to remove it unless it’s already been replaced with something else that will fill the same need. Don’t take away my chips and queso if I have no other way to feel better after a crummy day at work. Don’t take away sex if when it’s gone I find myself desperately, irremediably alone.

Polyamory & the Pence Rule

I started out this blog series intending to blog about sex every day for a month. It’s been well over a month, and I haven’t come close to blogging every day. That’s just WAY more writing than I can handle. I’m just going to continue on the topic, posting at random intervals until I get tired of it. How does that sound? 🙂

As I’ve been writing on sex, I’ve gotten a lot of reading suggestions from friends. I’ve been reading as voraciously as it’s possible for a slow reader to do. This suggestion from an old friend (who knows my background very well) was one of the more intriguing ones:

This is going to be an odd suggestion, and you are of course welcome to ignore it, but… The best sex/relationship advise I have heard since the end of my marriage has nearly all come out of the polyamorous/ethical nonmonogamy world. Which, may sound odd, but the thing is, in order to balance multiple relationships, you have to first think far more deeply about relationships than most people ever do to begin with, and then you wind up with far more practical experience than most ever get.

Based on his recommendation, I’ve been reading The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory, Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Alternative Love by Dedeker WinstonI want to make something really clear from the beginning of this post: polyamory is not something that’s on the table for me. It’s just not. Moral questions aside, I’m just not built that way. I could spill some serious ink on that, but I’ll save it for another time.

So, with that out of the way, can I say that my friend was spot on? Can I call myself a polyamorist who doesn’t believe in having multiple sex partners at the same time? The book wasn’t just packed with really good, practical advice for dealing with people (I learned more from this book about good arguments than I have almost anywhere else), there were a ton of things I agreed with on a more philosophical level. I’ll probably write more posts about this, but the huge point of agreement that leapt out at me was this:

The way our culture treats monogamous relationships saddles them with too much and deprives us of significant benefits from other relationships.

One of the beautiful parts of Smart Girl’s Guide was when Winston wrote about how much love there is to be found everywhere. How polyamorists don’t like to tie themselves to one person because there are so many amazing people in the world, because no one person will meet all of your needs. Smart Girl’s Guide talks about raising children in communities, about open lines of communication between multiple partners, about going to one person to meet some needs and another for others. That reminds me of how I’ve learned to live my life, first out of necessity but now out of appreciation for the richness of my life with so much love from all sides. Spending years in a non-functioning marriage sucked, but one thing it did do for me was force me to look for healthy, supporting relationships outside of that one relationship and to appreciate the power of platonic touch. (I also pursued less healthy alternatives, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

If you pursue it, there is a wealth of relationship to be had. I won’t pretend I’m great at this, but it is something I value and appreciate and put effort into. I’m not currently in a romantic relationship, but I have friends I can turn to in emergencies. I have a whole flock of people who will give me long hugs or hold my hand when I need it. (One friend has a 20-second minimum for hugs. It’s the best.) There are people who cook for me when I’m sick and check in on me when I’m down. People who have held me so tightly when I cried that I got snot in their hair. (Yeah, that’s happened. Twice. You’ve been warned.)

When I talk to friends all over the country, it is clear that my experience is tragically exceptional. Our culture is suffering from a deep, pervasive poverty of relationships. I’ve stopped counting the number of friends who have told me they are chronically lonely. Stay-at-home moms and retirees who barely have contact with the world outside their homes other than Facebook. People who don’t have friends other than their spouses. Sure, some of that can be personality driven. Some people are super introverted and they are happy that way. That’s fine, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are lonely, isolated, and deeply, deeply unhappy.

What does that have to do with sex? Well, I’m glad you asked. The common thread I see between the polyamory book and evangelical “purity culture” is that both associate that kind of closeness primarily with sexual relationships (inside or outside of marriage). Smart Girl jumps to the conclusion that, since we should be pursuing deeper relationships with more people, we should also be having sex with them. Purity culture guards carefully against all kinds of extramarital relationships because it sees any intimacy as a stepping stone to sex. Think about the Pence/Billy Graham Rule, that implies that men and women shouldn’t be alone together under any circumstances because it’s dangerous to their marriages. I have married friends who don’t text or email friends of the opposite sex without including their spouse in the conversation.

Those are unfortunately not uncommon, but one less common rule I’ve heard of that is worth mentioning because boils my blood is a 3-second limit on hugs. Between anyone.(Old news, I know. But still annoying.) WHAT ON GOD’S GREAT EARTH IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE IF THEY CAN’T HUG ANYONE WITHOUT FEELING FRISKY? I mean, am I crazy to think that most physical touch can and should be platonic? (Seriously, even in a romantic relationship, how much touch time is spent on sex? Shouldn’t there be just as much time holding hands and snuggling on the couch and sleeping in each other’s arms? I’m a big fan of sex, but other physical contact across all kinds of relationships is also great. I want both!!) Okay, I’m done ranting…

So… let’s consider that we evangelicals may be addressing a culture that is relationally malnourished by cutting back its food. If I thought I needed to have sex with people to have those kinds of close relationships, I would. Oh wait, I HAVE. Having started an affair over text message, I will tell you right now that lax rules about texting weren’t the heart of the problem. The heart was loneliness. When well-meaning friends told me, “take these guys numbers off your phone!” that’s pretty much what I told them. If I’m starving, locking the refrigerator isn’t going to help when there’s a store right down the street.

I don’t think rampant infidelity (particularly in the church) is a problem created by easy access. I think it stems, in part, from thinking it is only (or even mainly) romantic relationships that will feed our need, then limiting other relationships to protect The Sacred One. We are afraid because our romantic relationships aren’t what they should be, so we elevate them by digging a deep trench around them, carving away, diminishing, even eliminating other relationships. When we’re trying to keep the bad stuff out, we’re keeping the good out, too. When we put all of our eggs in the one rather unrealistic relationship basket, we’re contributing to a toxically lonely environment for ourselves.

I think healthy friendships make for healthy partners make for healthy partnerships. I think it’s very possible that normalizing platonic friendships between men and women and building more community in general makes cheating less enticing. If I don’t depend on one relationship to meet all my needs, I won’t give up on it so readily. And–dare I say it?–it seems like sex should be better when it’s an expression of joy overflowing from the life I have rather than an act of desperate grasping for the one I don’t…


The following is something I read at church a few weeks ago. It’s ready to go and people have asked me to make it available… Makes my first post easy-peasy. I left some of the style in that I’d added for emphasis when I was reading it. Feel free to imagine me banging on a non-existent pulpit as you read it.

Hi, I’m Amy. It is such a privilege to stand up here and talk about the God I love in front of people that I love. Today I’m talking about communion.

I want to start with Genesis 2:18  “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

This verse is referred to a lot when people are talking about the relationship between men and women, but it’s also about the birth of human relationship. Adam and Eve weren’t just the first married couple. They were the first community. The first family. The first church. Eve wasn’t just the first woman, she was the second person. Her appearance was the birth of human relationship and community.

And she was described as a helper. The word “helper” comes from the Hebrew word ezer, which comes from root words meaning to be strong, to rescue. It’s used 21 times in the Old testament, usually alongside other words that denote strength and power. It’s also usually used to describe the Holy Spirit:

Deuteronomy 33:26 describes God as: “The Rider of the Heavens in your strength (`-z-r), and on the clouds in his majesty.”

“Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is the shield of your strength (`-z-r) and the sword of your majesty.” Deut. 33:29

In both verses, ezer is translated as strength. The spirit of God is a helper/fighter, and we are clearly created to imitate him in that way with relationship to each other.

Another ministry of the Holy Spirit is to unify believers. I do not think it is a coincidence that He is a helper, a unifier, and a fighter. Unity can take every ounce of our strength to obtain and maintain. Sin divides and isolates us in so many ways. Think of the first sin, and what came after. Adam and Eve hid themselves under leaves and ran into the bushes when they heard God coming. Sin destroyed unity and community. Sinning and being sinned against cause us to hide in shame.

You may hear people quote the Bible a lot about things God hates. I won’t go into what the most common things that people bring up or whether they’re right about them. But I will say the Bible does talk about things he hates, and they tend to come in lists. One list is in Proverbs 6:

There are six things the Lord hates,

   seven that are detestable to him:

haughty eyes,

       a lying tongue,

       hands that shed innocent blood,

a heart that devises wicked schemes,

       feet that are quick to rush into evil,

a false witness who pours out lies

       and a person who stirs up conflict in the community

Of all the evils on earth, this verse says that there are 6-7 that God HATES and they are all related to division, conflict, snobbishness…things that destroy community.

As we take communion, I want to challenge you to think of this not just as communion with God, but communion with one another. The first communion was Jesus eating a meal together with his disciples. In the early church, the Bible says “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2: 42, 44) Four things: teaching, hanging out together, prayer, and what we’re about to do: breaking bread together. And they had incredible unity, to the point that they shared all of each other’s stuff.

God created us to be with him TOGETHER. In communion, the bread represents the body of Christ. But remember that we the church are also the body of Christ. One head, many members, one body.

It is my prayer that as we take communion, we do it in a spirit of unity that will continue through the week. Commune with Christ and with each other. Fight like the Holy Spirit against the things that destroy our unity. Don’t fight with your spouse over the things that divide you. Fight alongside your spouse against the things that divide you. Don’t be afraid of getting someone else’s mess all over you. Be more afraid of letting their mess put a wall between you. If you see someone in isolation (are they sitting alone? Is it someone who has trouble making eye contact?) don’t shrug your shoulders and think that there’s nothing you can do. FIGHT FOR THEM. Don’t make them come to you with their problems, lovingly pursue people you see hiding behind a wall of isolation.

Friends, we are fighters for unity alongside the Holy Spirit of GOD! Fight. Every. Day. against what God hates–things that destroy loving community.

This is what Jesus said at the first communion:

“He took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the covenant in my blood.’”

God, thank you for your Holy self that you gave us with your presence on earth, your death on the cross, and your resurrection. Thank you for the relationship we can have with you and with each other as a result. No more hiding. No more shame. No more isolation. Amen.